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Words Matter: The Black Hole

By Lily Amirzadeh


Black holes have been a scientific mystery for millenia. However, we recently acquired an image of the phenomenon, which was previously thought to be impossible. Logically, many thought that a black hole would stay true to its name and be completely black, so therefore a photo of a black hole would be nothing. This idea was proven wrong with the new image, which shows the light falling beyond the event horizon - never to escape. This image was made possible with a lot of help from Katie Bouman, who was an essential figure to making this image possible.. She represented a chief part of creating the algorithm that made the data from the black holes into a picture. Dr. Bouman has an impressive background, with many degrees from prestigious universities. She has an S.M. degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT, a B.S.E. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. Bouman was a postdoctoral fellow with the Event Horizon Telescope, and she is now an Assistant Professor in the CMS (Computing and Mathematical Sciences) department at Caltech.


The journey to creating this image was difficult and time-consuming. The team that made this image possible did it using the EHT, or Event Horizon Telescope. The EHT is not one massive telescope, but many telescopes all over the globe that work in tandem to focus on the black hole. In April 2017, the weather was adequate for the EHT to collect data on the black hole. Then, the telescopes were synced up and were beginning to collect the data. The EHT would record what it saw, then store it on computer disk media. By the end of the collection process, there were about 5 petabytes worth of data, which equates to about 5,000,000 gigabytes. At last, the data they received could be made into one image.


Dr. Bouman explained how they processed massive amounts of data and compiled it into one picture. Since she was a leader on the project and has deep knowledge of it, her explanation of the algorithm’s inner workings is fascinating. She likened the data from the EHT to playing a song on the piano with many broken keys. Since her team doesn’t have a telescope on every place on Earth all the time, they are missing a lot of data, which are the broken keys. They must put together a picture, or song, using a small amount of data, or keys. Bouman and her colleagues collected a lot of data, but it isn’t enough to give them a completely accurate picture of the black hole. Therefore, they use the data they do have in order to reconstruct what they believe a black hole looks like. This process is completed by ranking all of the images they collected by how plausible they look, and they utilize the best images to create the final image of the black hole we know today.


Sources:


“About Me.” Katie Bouman Aka Katherine L. Bouman, MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab, people.csail.mit.edu/klbouman/index.html.


“Imaging a Black Hole.” Event Horizon Telescope, eventhorizontelescope.org/science.


Lutz, Ota. “How Scientists Captured the First Image of a Black Hole.” Jet Propulsion Laboratory , NASA, 19 Apr. 2019, www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/news/2019/4/19/how-scientists-captured-the-first-image-of-a-black-hole/.



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